The Twilight Generation Can't Read

Sandra Stotsky

This press release comes from the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), an organization in whose founding many NAS members were involved, and in which they continue to participate. It was created in many ways to be an alternative to the Modern Language Association. The ALSCW has completed an interesting report on the state of the American high school English curriculum. One observation it makes is that the top books read by high school students are young adult fantasies. The ALSCW identifies this as a potential source of the decline in reading achievement among young Americans. Below are ALSCW's other findings and recommendations.

Boston, Mass., October, 2010. A newly released study by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW) strongly suggests that two factors—a fragmented English curriculum and a neglect of close reading—may explain why the reading skills of American high school students have shown little or no improvement in several decades despite substantial increases in funds for elementary and secondary education by federal and state governments.

The ALSCW report, entitled Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, And 11: A National Survey, analyzes the responses of more than four hundred representative public school teachers who were asked what works of literature they assign in standard and honors courses, and what approaches they use for teaching students how to understand imaginative literature and literary non-fiction.

Among the study's major findings:

  1. The content of the literature and reading curriculum for students in standard or honors courses is no longer traditional or uniform in any consistent way. The most frequently mentioned titles are assigned in only a small percentage of courses, and the low frequencies for almost all the other titles English teachers assign point to an idiosyncratic literature curriculum for most students.
  2. The works teachers assign generally do not increase in difficulty from grade 9 to grade 11.
  3. Teachers do not favor close, analytical readings of assigned works. They prefer such non-analytical approaches as a personal response or a focus on a work’s historical or biographical context (for instance, class discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird that emphasize the Scottsboro Trials or Jim Crow laws in the South, rather than the novel’s plot, characters, style, and moral meaning).

"These findings suggest that the way reading and writing are taught today by many high-school teachers may be impeding college-readiness for many public high school students," said Sandra Stotsky, Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and the study's principal author.

“College courses not just in English but in many disciplines routinely assign difficult texts and expect students to understand, analyze, and write coherently about them. According to ACT, a major reason why college students end up in remedial courses or drop out of college is their inability to comprehend and analyze complex texts. An incoherent high-school curriculum that rarely advances beyond 9th-grade-level texts and that expects little more than impressionistic responses to them is a prescription for educational underperformance or outright failure at the college level,” Prof. Stotsky said.

Susan J. Wolfson, President of the ALSCW and Professor of English at Princeton University, said: “Beyond college readiness, skill in literary analysis—especially close attention to the artifacts and designs of language—is vital to an informed, capable citizenry. This important study should, in my view, be required reading by high-school English teachers, high-school administrators, and boards of education throughout the nation.”

The ALSCW recommends that:

  1. high schools revise their English curriculum to incorporate a progressively more challenging core of literary and non-literary texts with cultural and historical significance for our own country and other countries;
  2. English departments at colleges and universities emphasize the analytical study of literature, especially for those students planning to become secondary English teachers;
  3. the U.S. Department of Education and state legislatures give priority to the funding of professional development programs that emphasize teaching close, careful reading.

The complete, 36-page report (and its appendices) may be read on, and downloaded from, the ALSCW's website, at www.bu.edu/literary/publications/Forum4.pdf.

For more information, contact:

Katherine Hala
Office Administrator
617-358-1990
[email protected]

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